It’s easy to listen when you know how. Draw a word out of someone without saying anything back. When the patriarchy has trained you to take and connect and to be warm until you’re exhaling bad feeling like water from a sponge as you walk the streets at 4:30 am.
It’s easy to compartmentalise advice and to pick and choose moments when you’re really engaged. It’s easy to feel like you’re everybody’s secret keeper and there’s nowhere else for it to go. You’re swelling up at an alarming rate but at the same time being pushed firmly down by the weight on your shoulders and there’s no tiny hole to let the air out. No release until you split right down the seams and then, to the world who expects you to be someone who gives, you are useless.
Most of the time I avoid conflict. I try to live an easy life, which catches up with me at every opportunity. I try to resolve instead of fight. A lot of the time I try to think as little as possible. Which is why the books I read are easy. Not easy in the sense that they’re short or the vocabulary is simple or that the text is big. But easy in that they give me something to take away without causing me to think or feel pain or any kind of inner turmoil that really good books so often manage to do.
So I read shallow self-help books and autobiographies and chick lit and YA fiction, especially when I was writing YA fiction myself. And it gives me something. All books do. But I didn’t work for it. It was never anything tangible. A good feeling, or a distraction.
And then against my own will, I read Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee. And it saved me a little bit. It hurt me. It made me wonder what the point of it all was. It was worth it. If you haven’t heard of KritikMe, the online course I did to write a novel in 90 days, this is one of the set texts. Louise, the course tutor, goes into a lot of detail about this book and its author and the thing that maybe made it so good for me was that I read all the critical material before I read the actual book. I’ve never been very good at reading set texts, even at uni. But if a book is at the front of my attention for long enough I guess I have to find out what happens.
So I started reading, and it was what I thought it was going to be, at first. It made me cringe, it made me want to read on, in a kind of lazy way, it grabbed my attention but I wasn’t racked. A couple of chapters in and it was already starting to make me squirm inside, to visit places inside of myself that I had spent such a long time patting down neatly into a place so that I never had to visit them anymore.
And then it took off. It spiralled out of control. I’m not going to tell you really too much about the book because I just want you to read it, no matter who you are, so it becomes a part of you. But it hurt. It hurt but I just carried on, like a marathon or if you’re peeling off a plaster really slowly under the water in the bath. I read it at night, I read it when I woke up, I read it at work on my lunch break, I read it on trains, I read it in bathrooms and walking along on the street. I knew if I stopped, I wouldn’t be able to keep going. It was like someone had slit me open and my organs were falling out all around me and I just kind of had to let it happen.
And then one night, I finished it. On the last little bit of my connecting train home one dark Sunday night, I finished it just as I was about to alight. I was supposed to get the bus the rest of the way home, it was late and I had a heavy bag. But I needed to think about it. I needed air and space to really mull it over and let it consume my thoughts. So I walked all the way home, looking through windows of the university buildings and at my feet as I walked uphill, practically shaking from the weight of the bag, my thoughts pulling me along all the way home.
That was months ago now. And I still think about it every day. I’ve been thinking about writing this post since then. Just so I could tell you all that Disgrace kind of saved me. It made me think, it made me feel, like books do. But it stayed with me, like some of my own worst and best memories. I’m glad it’s in my brain and that it probably always will be. So just go and read Disgrace. I don’t know if it will give you what it gave to me, but it’s worth a try.